Historically, we’ve looked to nonprofits and NGOs to create change and make the world a better place. I personally know this because I spent the last decade running the largest coastal nonprofit in the US, Surfrider Foundation. But one lesson I learned over that time was that even though most nonprofits are full of earnest, hard-working people, they almost always fail to scale their mission.
Why? Mostly because funding is limited, dependent on external factors and — let’s face it, we like our nonprofits to invest all their money solving the causes tied to their existence. This puts a real opportunity for change in the hands of global brands.
At the simplest level, businesses exist in the world for a reason; businesses solve problems in society and get paid for doing so. Some do this better than others, and those that do it best not only sell great products and services that answer customers needs, but also make customers lives a bit richer. And most importantly, their ideas live at scale.
When ideas live at scale, amazing things happen. Amazing things like social movements, meaningful cultural shifts and large-scale behavioral change.
Take Unilever’s Project Shakti, a program that employs women to sell its products in rural regions of India. Through the program, Unilever employs 70,000 entrepreneurs, serving 4 million households; creating a new, low-cost and nimble distribution chain; and in the end, fueling a social movement. Beyond the economic impact of this program there is also notable health benefits as more people throughout India are now living cleaner and healthier lives. Unilever’s brand was, and still is, a central part of this transformation, effectively bringing brand citizenship to scale.
Patagonia is perhaps the best example of a company with strong brand citizenship principals. Everything it does points to the idea of "leading an examined life." It educates us about the environmental footprint of its products, explains why that matters and shares best practices and materials innovation with other companies making these same products. Meanwhile, its "Worn Wear" clothing-repair initiative, challenges our culture of consumerism. At Patagonia, these programs are the core of their marketing.
American Eagle’s lingerie and apparel brand Aerie, Cheerios and Dove all have targeted campaigns to address women’s perception of themselves. These brands have campaigns that embrace non-Photoshopped models, calling out the downsides of "Dietainment" and asking women to see themselves as beautiful. This marketing generates a deep and personal connection with women by pushing for a change in perspectives and personal expectations.
This work is pushing people to continually expect a deep, personal connection with the brands they choose, because it’s not enough just to sell a product anymore. Brands can, and should, take a stand for something. But only something that’s connected to their business goals and something their fans see as a natural extension of who they are.
Brands pointing to ideas bigger than themselves is the new status quo. That’s why I believe the real opportunity for change at scale is with global brands.
Jim Moriarty is director of brand citizenship at 72andSunny.